It was the end of an afternoon snorkeling at Sombrero Chino with Ecoventura. Also known as Chinese Hat island, this was an area notorious for spotting Galápagos penguins, and we hadn’t seen any yet. We had been warned that they were scarce, but it was the last animal on my Galápagos Islands Bucket List to observe and I didn’t want to return home without a check next to it.
Just one little penguin. Is that too much to ask?
Disappointment started to set in as our naturalist beckoned the snorkelers to come aboard the panga. As I was dismally making my way towards our dinghy, someone from our group started yelling “penguin, penguin”. I instantly did a 180 and rapidly paddled towards the reef of the sighting.
In the distance straight ahead, two Galapagos penguins perched on the lava rock could be seen. I propelled forward with one hand and took photos with the other just in case they decided to plunge into the water before I arrived for an up close shot.
They did not budge. Good penguins.
As a matter of fact, the pair decided to stick around for quite a while, posing for the paparazzi of snorkelers. They gave us many different angles to work with, as if trying to find out what their “best side” for the camera was. For future reference Mr. P, profile works best.
What makes these little critters so special is that the Galapagos penguins are the only wild penguin that lives North of the Equator and it has the smallest population size of all the penguins. These are ones that you actually don’t have to brave the bitter cold to see.
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Situated in the Pacific Ocean, the Galapagos Islands are a volcanic archipelago that lie 620 miles from the South American mainland. A province of Ecuador, it consists of 13 main islands and 6 smaller isles. It is a remote destination that is a melting pot of unique wildlife, which inspired Charles Darwin’s landmark theory of evolution following his visit in 1835. Have been called a “living museum and showcase of wildlife” it is home to wildlife species that are found nowhere else on Earth; the giant tortoise, Galapagos sea lions, Flightless Cormorant, the Waved Albatross and, of course the boobies.
Galapagos is reached through the country of Ecuador by flying into either the capital city of Quito or the countries largest city of Guayaquil. If you don’t plan on spending any time on the mainland, fly into Guayaquil, since it is closer to the islands and most flights from Quito to the Galapagos stop there. If you plan on doing some exploring in Ecuador prior or after your trip, go to Quito. Its famous old town is an UNESCO World Heritage Site filled with colonial charm, bustling markets and architectural buildings. Whichever city you choose, will most likely require an overnight stay.
The Galapagos Islands has two airports, one on San Cristóbal and the other on Isla Baltra, just north of Santa Cruz. Which airport you choose will depend on how you have decided to explore the islands. The flight from Guayaquil to the islands is approximately an hour and forty-five minutes (about 40 minutes from Quito to Guayaquil). Domestic flights can be booked through TAME, Avianca or LAN.
Spanish is the official language in Ecuador and on the Galapagos Islands, though English is widely spoken on tours, plus in the restaurants and hotels.
The US Dollar
Plug Type A/B, 110v. The voltage and socket is the same as the U.S., so there is not need for an adapter or converter.
When to Go:
Every month in the Galapagos has its highlights and the weather makes any time of the year a good time to visit, so when you go greatly depends on the type of experience you are looking to have. For example, in March on San Cristobal and Genovesa you can catch a glimpse of the frigatebirds inflated red throat pouches, in May your chances increase for witnessing the blue-footed booby mating dance on North Seymour and in August you can catch the newly born sea lion pups. There is always something incredible to see on the Galapagos. For a complete list of wildlife activity check out the monthly calendar at Ecuador Travel Site.
The peak tourism months are June, July and August, as well as mid-December through mid-January. You should book your trip well in advance during these times, as the number of visitors allowed on the islands is limited. Be aware that the prices are also often higher during this time. December through May is when the sea tends to be the calmest. In these months the weather is hotter and slightly rainy with temperatures typically in the 80s. On most days the sun will still make an appearance after the rainfall. June through November brings cooler temperatures (in the 70s) and colder water. Experienced divers prefer this time of year, as the currents bringing nutrients into the water draws more amazing marine life.
How to Visit/Planning:
One of the biggest decisions to make when planning your travel to Galapagos is how you will choose to explore the islands. You can either take a cruise on a live-aboard boat or stay onshore using a hotel as your base. If you select the latter, it is possible to book day trips to some of the popular islands from Santa Cruz or San Cristobal. Though this may be a more economical option, getting around independently can be challenging, as exploring most of the islands requires being accompanied by a licensed guide. Plus, you will have limitations to the islands you can reach due to the distance. The advantage to a multi-day live-aboard cruise is that they leverage the night hours by using them to travel between islands, so your days are not wasted. The small group yachts, under 20 passengers, are the best way to explore the islands and see more of the wildlife in a personalized environment. There are dozens, if not hundreds, of licensed vessels with a variety of stops and routes to choose from. Ecoventura is the sustainable travel company who took me through the islands, and is ideal for those wanting a small group experience with educated naturalists. If you opt for day trips from the main islands, Sharksky offers good options. The best solution may be to take a 4-day cruise then spend a couple days on your own on a populated island, like Puerto Ayora in Santa Cruz or Puerto Baquerizo Moreno in Cristóbal.
Navigating between the islands will require a plane or boat. Though for getting around on the populated islands you can rent a bike for about $15 per day or catch a taxi for a couple of bucks to most destinations.
Where to Stay:
If you are staying overnight in Guayaquil, try Hotel Oro Verde (from $124), which offers shuttle service from the airport or for a more peaceful stay in a quiet residential area, Nazu House Bed & Breakfast (from $86). In Quito, splurge at Hotel Patio Andaluz (from $210) centrally located in the historic district or hideaway at Las Terrazas de Dana (from $109), a modern ecolodge in the cloud forest of Mindo. In the Galapagos, stay in the lap of luxury at Finch Bay Eco Hotel (from $325) on Santa Cruz Island or the family run Galapagos Suites (from $134). On San Cristóbal, try the simple Galapagos Eco Friendly (from $89) that has all you need.
Where to Eat:
While in Quito, get your ceviche fix at Zazu (www.zazuquito.com) or indulge in traditional Ecuadorian dishes and pasta at Fried Bananas Café (www.newfriedbananas.com), make sure to order the fried banana dessert made with vodka. In Guayaquil, try local foods with a trendy twist at La Pizarra (www.facebook.com/lapizarraec) or opt for Noe (www.noesushibar.com), known as the place to go for great sushi. On the island of Santa Cruz have a casual dinner at Calle de los Kioscos, an open-air market with plenty of cheap local food choices. For outdoor dining, head over to La Garrapata (+593 5-252-6264) for the fresh tuna in a sesame and pepper sauce. For a local experience on San Cristóbal, get burgers at Cri’s (www.facebook.com/CrisBurgerFactory) and eat on the tiny stools out front.
Bucket List Must-Dos:
- Plan your trip around the month of May to get a better chance of witnessing the Blue Footed Booby mating dance, the courtship ritual of these popular birds.
- Take the steep climb to the top of the volcanic cone of Bartolomé and get a peak at the most photographed natural structure in the Galapagos, Pinnacle Rock.
- Do as the sailors did in the 19th century and send a post card at Post Office Bay on Floreana Island. Leave one and sift through the others to pick one close to home to hand deliver.
- Take a closer look at the giant tortoises at the Darwin Research Station (www.darwinfoundation.org) in Puerto Ayora where scientists and volunteers are involved in conservation.
- Snorkel through the network of lava tunnels known as Los Tuneles on isle Isabela. The unique formations above and below the water include a series of arcs and tunnels that are a sanctuary of marine life.
- It is a requirement to have a naturalist with you when exploring the protected islands; you cannot just venture off on your own.
- Though you may be able to hop onto a last-minute cruise when you reach the islands, it’s best to book well in advance, at least 3-4 months during non-peak times and 6 months to a year during high tourist months.
- When arriving to either of the two Galapagos airports, travelers must pay a $100 per person ($50 for children under 12) Galapagos National Park (galapagospark.org) entrance fee at immigration.
- A visa is not required to enter Ecuador, though make sure your passport does not expire within 6 months of arrival.
- It is strictly prohibited to touch or otherwise disturb the nature or wildlife of the Galapagos. Do not feed the animals (not even a drop of water) or leave behind any sort of litter.
- Exploring the Galapagos typically means being on a boat, so make sure that you load up on motion sickness medication. Some days can get pretty choppy and seasickness can even affect those not prone to it. Try the sea-band wristband or Dramamine’s less drowsy formula.
- Be kind to the ecosystem by bringing biodegradable sunscreen, shampoo, conditioner and lotions. (Alba Botanica makes a highly rated sunscreen and Campsuds makes a multi-purpose cleaner that can be used as a shampoo, body wash or even dish cleaner.)
- A small pair of binoculars can go a long way when trying to spot wildlife from the boat. (Bushnell Falcon makes some nice ones for under $30)
- Limit plastic waste by bringing a reusable water bottle. (The Vapor Element Bottle is perfect for travel since it folds up into a tiny neat package when empty)
- Bring the right pair of shoes. Light hiking shoes are necessary for some of the islands and water shoes are needed for the wet landings when the panga can’t bring you all the way to the shore or dock. A dual-purpose Keen style active shoe would work well. Also, bring a comfortable pair of deck shoes to wear while just hanging out on the boat.
- Don’t forget an underwater camera to capture the incredible marine life. I use a GoPro, but if you want a cheaper option just get an underwater case for your phone.
- Most tours will provide snorkeling gear (masks, tube, fins and wet suit), but consider at least bringing your own mask. A properly fitted one can enhance your snorkel experience and lessen the chances of missing marine-life because of having to fiddle with your gear.
- You can leave the makeup and blow dryers at home since you will most likely be in and out of the water several times per day.
- Bring a small daypack to take along on the hikes.
- Pack a dry bag to store all your electronics. It can get tricky moving from the small panga to shore while carrying your camera equipment and you want to make sure it is protected.
- If you are taking a cruise, there will be some down time and very limited Internet. Bring a book or download movies to your laptop prior to leaving home.
- It gets hot in the Galapagos and a long-sleeved UPF shirt to protect you from the sun while hiking or snorkeling can save your shoulders from a brutal burn.
Galapagos Conservancy www.galapagos.org